Comfort brings out best in Mariners' Gutierrez
Some athletes need disrespect for motivation. Franklin Gutierrez thrives on comfort.
Seattle Times staff columnist
PEORIA, Ariz. — Before the notoriety, before the contract extension, before the adoring ladies changed his last name to "CUTIErrez," Franklin Gutierrez stood in the office of Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu last April and prayed silently that he hadn't been summoned to a breakup meeting.
Gutierrez was an everyday starter for the first time in his career, and he was struggling at the plate. He figured this would be the same talk he had endured many times in his young career. He could almost hear the words, "Guti, we're going to give someone else a shot out there."
And at the peak of his anxiety, a crazy thing happened: nothing. Wakamatsu simply wanted to reassure his young player.
"Hey, just relax," Wakamatsu said that day. "Play your game. You're going to take 500, 600 at-bats this year. It doesn't matter if you go 0 for 4 today, 0 for 4 tomorrow, 0 for 4 the next day. You're going to be there every day.
"You are our center fielder."
It turns out that was all Gutierrez needed — to belong. And security that it wasn't a fleeting promise.
"That's the kind of confidence that you're looking for," he said last week with a grin that seemed to stretch from right-center field to left-center field.
You should know the story from here. If not, a quick refresher: Gutierrez went on to have a breakout offensive year to supplement his divine defense. As a result, he signed a $20.5 million contract extension before spring training, and the consensus reaction was, "What a steal."
Everybody loves Franklin Gutierrez. He might be the most universally appreciated player on Seattle's roster.
The stat geeks love him. He's the king of UZR, which stands for Ultimate Zone Rating, which is the finest measure of defensive ability in baseball.
The pitchers love him. From Felix Hernandez to David Aardsma, the Mariners rave about how many runs Gutierrez saves and how he makes them feel as if they merely have to keep the ball in the park — or near the park — when their center fielder is in the game.
The public loves him. Gutierrez is surprised at how many people know him when he walks the streets of Seattle. Then he turns shy when asked if he knows how many women have crushes on him.
"Well, I have a wife, so, no, no, I don't pay too much attention to that," he said. "I guess that's good, though."
Even the CUTIErrez nickname?
"Ohmigod!" he exclaimed. "Well, if they say that, I don't know. What can I say?"
Ever polite, Gutierrez settled on the proper reaction — thank you — before redirecting the discussion.
"Wow," he said, shaking his head. "OK, I'll tell you something: Everything has changed for me. When you sign to play professional baseball, your first dream is just to get to the big leagues. And when you get to the big leagues, you just want to be around for a long time. And when you get to that point, like I did, it's amazing. It's just amazing for me, because I know the hard work I've put into it to get to this point. I thank God for this, thank my family, thank my wife. They really helped me out on the bad moments.
"I dreamed of this, to be in a place where they really want you, and everything has come true right now."
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik brought Gutierrez to Seattle in December 2008 via the gigantic, three-team, 12-player, J.J. Putz trade. Gutierrez, a 25-year-old Venezuelan trapped in a right-field platoon in Cleveland, was a key to the deal. In Gutierrez, the Mariners saw an ace defensive center fielder playing out of position because the beloved Grady Sizemore resided in the same position.
If only Gutierrez could hit better, the Mariners concluded, they would be the recipients of an underappreciated treasure.
Last season, Gutierrez hit .283 with 18 home runs and 70 RBI. And even though he didn't win the popularity contest that has become the Gold Glove awards, he was easily the best defensive outfielder in baseball.
Now, he's rich. But most important, he's settled. Some athletes need disrespect for motivation. Gutierrez thrives on comfort. We have yet to see the best of him.
"Every time when I feel like something's secure, I feel like I work better," he said. "That's what I feel now. I feel relaxed. I feel like I'm going to be here for a long time, and that's very important because you want to be in a place where everybody wants you. And that's what I feel. It gives me the freedom to put everything I have into the Seattle Mariners. That's what I'm doing right now."
Gutierrez doesn't need another meeting with Wakamatsu to be certain of that, either. It's a given now, much like the certainty he will track down any fly ball in his ZIP code.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer
About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
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